From a Korean Middle-Class Female

I went to the Middle-Class Women’s Workshop near Baltimore, Maryland, USA.1 It was a struggle having to manage how white it was. I didn’t even realize how much I had to do in my mind to keep working around that fact. It’s what I do every day—try to ignore or keep at bay the pressures to assimilate and the feeling that I have to do things the way everybody else does, like speak English all the time.

Like many women of the global majority who were raised middle class, I grew up in a predominantly white environment, so this feels “normal” and also very restimulating. I’ve worked on my internalized racism to where I can be open to relationships with white women, and white people in general. Still it’s hard to be fully myself in white environments. It’s hard when racist things happen, like they did at the workshop. I’m not sure people even realized what they were doing. My conditioning to be nice, and immigrant stuff about not understanding what’s happening, has made it difficult for me to speak up and openly challenge racism when it occurs.

Diane did a piece on celebrating the victories of middle-class women. Even though it’s not enough that the gains of second-wave feminism2 in the United States were largely gains for middle-class women, they were still victories that we can celebrate. We cheered for the women in the room who had gotten higher degrees, were doctors and lawyers and in other male-dominated professions. I usually feel embarrassed about having gone to an elite university, but figuring out how to “succeed” in the U.S. educational system when my immigrant parents couldn’t help me at all was a victory both as a female and as an immigrant.

I got a chance to tell my story in a demonstration. I felt like I was taking a lot of time, but Diane thought it was important to look at U.S. imperialism and the middle-agent role.3

When World War II ended and the Japanese colonial powers withdrew from the Korean Peninsula, Korea was divided by the occupying military powers of the United States and Russia. The Korean War from the point of view of (some people in) North Korea was about reunification of the peninsula. From the point of view of the United States (and many people in South Korea), it was one of the first global fights against communism. Diane pointed out how the anti-communism in the United States at that time scared the growing middle class into compliance.

My mother was raised middle class, my father owning class, and both of them were young people during the Korean War. Because of the U.S. involvement in Korea, my parents, like many South Koreans, immigrated to the United States, where our family was set up to play a middle-agent role.

In Korea, both of my parents had gone to university. My father had gotten a bachelor’s degree, and my mom both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree (but all in the context of a male-dominated society—her bachelor’s degree was in home economics and her master’s was in costume history). My dad had been in the South Korean diplomatic corps for the first nine years of my life, but then he quit and wanted to go to graduate school in the United States, so my mom worked.

Like many Asian immigrants who were middle class or professionals in their home country, my mom didn’t have access to professional jobs in the United States. She got a job at a friend’s store in a poor African American neighborhood in the south side of Chicago. Later she bought the store and ran it for thirty years until she retired. Hers was the sole income for our family, because my dad basically never worked again.

Through our Korean church and her network of school friends, my mom had access to information and support from other Korean immigrants running small businesses. She didn’t bank in the neighborhood where the store was located, she hired Korean managers, and we lived in a different neighborhood—first one that was mainly immigrants and later in mostly white suburbs.

I felt bad about the store. I felt like we were in a privileged position and an oppressive role toward the people whose neighborhood we were in. I didn’t have information about the middle-agent role. I didn’t know that we were not just oppressors, that we were also being set up to occupy a niche in the middle—both benefiting from the situation and benefiting others.

(Some people might not know that U.S. immigration laws were changed in 1965 in a way that initially favored middle-class professionals. Thus a lot of immigrants from Asia in the 1970s and 1980s were highly educated and/or middle class in their home countries. In the United States, Asians were pitted against other people of color and held up as the model minority, but their economic “success” was partly due to this stacking of the odds in immigration laws.)

Partly because I saw my mother do all the unpaid work of parenting and housekeeping and then all the work of earning an income, I’ve always thought that women do all the work. Diane’s piece on unpaid labor was very helpful. It helped me see that capitalism runs on women’s unpaid labor. Any struggle for class liberation has to address unpaid labor and value unpaid labor. We all get to value unpaid labor.

I liked the emphasis on collective action. Middle-class conditioning makes us separated and isolated, and the oppression of women tells us that our problems are individual, so it’s doubly important to organize collectively.

I also liked the idea that things don’t happen without a struggle and that we have to learn to fight, including in relationships. We can stop being “nice” and “good” and decide to take on4 fights.

JeeYeun Lee

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of women

1 A workshop held in February 2015 and led by Diane Balser, the International Liberation Reference Person for Women
2 Second-wave feminism was the feminism that began in the early 1960s and continued through the early 1980s. While the first-wave feminism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries focused on women's legal rights, such as the right to vote, second-wave feminism addressed every area of women's experience, including family, sexuality, and work.
3 "Middle-agent role" means role of being a visible agent of the oppressive society.
4 "Take on" means engage in.


Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00